Celebrated as “the last of the great white male” American authors of the 20th Century, Philip Roth has died at the age of 85.
Rather than devote pages (or pixels, as may more accurately be the case) to an obituary recounting the same great feats of an author who has towered over the US literary scene for decades, we have endeavoured to find and bring to you short stories, as well as one excellent piece of non-fiction, written by the man himself.
All the following texts are available online for free.
If one should compare the light of day to the life of man: sunrise to birth; sunset—the dropping down over the edge— to death; then as Ozzie Freedman wiggled through the trapdoor of the synagogue roof, his feet kicking backwards bronco-style at Rabbi Binder’s outstretched arms-at that moment the day was fifty years old. As a rule, fifty or fifty-five reflects accurately the age of late afternoons in
November, for it is in that month, during those hours, that one’s awareness of light seems no longer a matter of seeing, but of hearing: light begins clicking away. In fact, as Ozzie locked shut the trapdoor in the rabbi’s face, the sharp click of the bolt into the lock might momentarily have been mistaken for the sound of the heavier gray that had just throbbed through the sky.
Long ago, someone had taught Grossbart the sad rule that only lies can get the truth. Not that I couldn’t believe in the fact of Halpern’s crying; his eyes alwaysseemed red-rimmed. But, fact or not, it became a lie when Grossbart uttered it. He was entirely strategic. But then—it came with the force of indictment—so was I! There are strategies of aggression, but there are strategies of retreat as well. And so, recognizing that I myself had not been without craft and guile, I told him what I knew. “It is the Pacific.”
He let out a small gasp, which was not a lie. “I’ll tell him. I wish it was otherwise.”
“So do I.”
He jumped on my words. “You mean you think you could do something? A change, maybe?”
“No, I couldn’t do a thing.”
“Don’t you know anybody over at C. and A.?”
“Grossbart, there’s nothing I can do,” I said. “If your orders are for the Pacific, then it’s the Pacific.”
“Mickey, you, me—everybody, Grossbart. There’s nothing to be done. Maybe the war’ll end before you go. Pray for a miracle.”
“Good night, Grossbart.” I settled back, and was relieved to feel the springs unbend as Grossbart rose to leave. I could see him clearly now; his jaw had dropped, and he looked like a dazed prizefighter. I noticed for the first time a little paper bag in his hand.
“Grossbart.” I smiled. “My gift?”
“Oh, yes, Sergeant. Here—from all of us.” He handed me the bag. “It’s egg roll.”
“Egg roll?” I accepted the bag and felt a damp grease spot on the bottom. I opened it, sure that Grossbart was joking.
“We thought you’d probably like it. You know—Chinese egg roll. We thought you’d probably have a taste for—”
“Your aunt served egg roll?”
“She wasn’t home.”
“Grossbart, she invited you. You told me she invited you and your friends.”
“I know,” he said. “I just reread the letter. Next week.”
I got out of bed and walked to the window. “Grossbart,” I said. But I was not calling to him.
“What are you, Grossbart? Honest to God, what are you?”
I think it was the first time I’d asked him a question for which he didn’t have an immediate answer.
“How can you do this to people?” I went on.
“Sergeant, the day away did us all a world of good. Fishbein, you should see him, he loves Chinese food.”
“But the Seder,” I said.
“We took second best, Sergeant.”
Rage came charging at me. I didn’t sidestep. “Grossbart, you’re a liar!” I said. “You’re a schemer and a crook. You’ve got no respect for anything. Nothing at all. Not for me, for the truth—not even for poor Halpern! You use us all—”
“Sergeant, Sergeant, I feel for Mickey. Honest to God, I do. I love Mickey. I try—”
“You try! You feel!” I lurched toward him and grabbed his shirt front. I shook him furiously. “Grossbart, get out! Get out and stay the hell away from me. Because if I see you, I’ll make your life miserable You understand that?”
I let him free, and when he walked from the room, I wanted to spit on the floor where he had stood. I couldn’t stop the fury. It engulfed me, owned me, till it seemed I could only rid myself of it with tears or an act of violence. I snatched from the bed the bag Grossbart had given me and, with all my strength, threw it out the window. And the next morning, as the men policed the area around the barracks, I heard a great cry go up from one of the trainees, who had been anticipating only his morning handful of cigarette butts and candy wrappers. “Egg roll!” he shouted. “Holy Christ, Chinese goddam egg roll!”
Novel writing is for the novelist a game of let’s pretend. Like most every other novelist I know, once I had what Henry James called “the germ”—in this case, Mel Tumin’s story of muddleheadedness at Princeton—I proceeded to pretend and to invent Faunia Farley; Les Farley; Coleman Silk; Coleman’s family background; the girlfriends of his youth; his brief professional career as a boxer; the college where he rises to be a dean; his colleagues both hostile and sympathetic; his field of study; his bedeviled wife; his children both hostile and sympathetic; his schoolteacher sister, Ernestine, who is his strongest judge at the conclusion of the book; his angry, disapproving brother; and five thousand more of those biographical bits and pieces that taken together form the fictional character at the center of a novel.